Dating back to our newlywed days, George and I have eaten dinner together at the table with no interruptions. Family meals were equally important with the addition of children. When the quads were babies, George constructed a quad feeding table, which worked well for spoon feeding them. When they were about two years old, we transitioned to a family dinner table, which helped us better enjoy family meals because we were facing each other. For a while, mealtime was a pleasurable experience, but then it became dreadful.
Eliminating snacks certainly didn’t improve mealtime, and changing our snack menu improved nutrition, but still did not alleviate mealtime stress. Once again, I was back to the drawing board. I thought back to a conversation I had with one of our ECI therapists about a year ago. She too experienced mealtime woes and found the work of Ellyn Satter quite helpful. The foundation of Ellyn Satter’s work hinges on this principle:
“The parent is responsible for what, when, where. The child is responsible for how much and whether.” – Ellyn Satter Institute (ESI)
I thought we’d done a decent job following this principle as well as many of the other recommendations of the ESI.
Served three meals a day at regular times with snacks in between
- Sat at the table to eat
- We ate as a family with no interruptions
- We did not operate as short order cooks and did not limit our menu to appease anyone
- We always served something the kids would like at meals, and included a satisfying starch
- We let the kids choose which items from the meal to eat and how much of each item
We denied snacks between the regular meal and snack times
Despite all of these long standing mealtime habits, there were disgruntled children at our dinner table and it was unpleasant. Having quadruplets means that many of our daily tasks are completed in an assembly line manner, which makes things efficient and fair. The kid’s plates were no exception. In the past, after a meal was prepared, we set out the kids plates, filling them with each part of our meal. We ended up with four identical plates that were doled out at the table. During the meal, they were allowed to opt out of eating anything on their plate and were encouraged to put unwanted items to the side. They could also request more of anything they especially liked. Yet, there were many nights that kids screeched about something at dinner. I had one final idea I wanted to attempt.
While I was cooking dinner, I started asking the kids to set the table, giving each child something to set out. They took this new responsibility very seriously, and it really helped me because it completed a task and kept them occupied while I was busy. Once the meal was ready, we placed all of the food on the center of the table. Then, we’d take each dish, going around the table to ask each child if they wanted any. If it was an item they could self serve, we let them. If it was too difficult for them to manage, we’d ask them where (the where is critical) on their plate we should put the food, and how much. This small change was magical. Three year olds crave independence and control over anything they can manage. Giving them the control over what went on their plate and where it went alleviated our mealtime stress.
We’ve been serving all meals in this manner for about a month. In that time period, not one child has thrown a fit. In fact, the kids have been extremely complimentary about their meals saying things such as, “I like this meal, Mama!” (Mind you, they are complimenting the very meals that previously sent them into a tailspin.) They’ve also tried foods they previously denied. They don’t clean their plate, and I don’t want them to. Instead, they are eating until they feel satisfied and most of all, they are happy. Mealtime peace has been restored!
Rylin didn’t want to oblige me for a photo, but her plate is a really good example of how it was designed by her. She really loves tomatoes and she chose a tomato salad with Japanese dressing on it. The other three aren’t as keen on tomatoes and opted out.
How is dinner served at your house?